McCormick Magazine

Finding innovative solutions to fishy problems

John G. Shedd Aquarium


Beluga whaleIn the world of aquatic medicine, those who care for marine life — from small colorful fish to large marine mammals — often face unique challenges. That's why one of the world's leading aquariums, the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, has teamed up with the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. Together, these two organizations are collaboratively working to further the science of aquatic medicine and enhance animal care, while providing unique opportunities for students to learn engineering design.

The Shedd-McCormick partnership was inspired by Bill Van Bonn, DVM, Shedd's senior director for animal health, and Bob Shaw, a McCormick alumnus and member of the McCormick Advisory Council. The two realized that many of Shedd's needs could be met by undergraduate engineering students from Northwestern who already work with a variety of clients on projects that complement their classroom education. Over the past several years McCormick students have designed and engineered new systems that Shedd Aquarium can use for animal health and enrichment.

"Animal care is our top priority, and we are excited about the opportunity to further our knowledge and ability to care for all of our amazing animals through this partnership," says Van Bonn. "Northwestern's engineering program is unrivaled, and it's wonderful to see first-rate students apply their teachings and skills to our animal care priorities. It's a win-win for all of us."

When it's more than Jonah in the whale
Mills and Van BonnOne of the first projects to result from the partnership was the EndoGrabber, a device created to retrieve inedible items from the stomach of a whale, dolphin, or other marine mammal. When a wild marine mammal becomes stranded or washes up on shore, veterinarians sometimes find the animal has swallowed a foreign object, usually a man-made indigestible item such as a plastic bag. Typically veterinarians have had to rely on rigging up their own devices on the spot to retrieve these harmful items.

While extremely rare, an accidental swallowing can happen in an aquarium as well. That's why Shedd Aquarium wanted such a tool, just in case something fell into the water at the aquarium — and equally important, to help develop a tool that can possibly save animals in the wild.

"There is really no tool on the shelf that is effective enough to assist in these procedures," says Van Bonn. "Most of the medical equipment available today is designed for humans or companion animals, like dogs. After 15 years of working with marine mammals, I found myself saying, 'I'm sure we could build some kind of tool that protects the animal and is helpful.'"

A student team in a design class offered through the Segal Design Institute took up the challenge, and Van Bonn was surprised at how quickly solutions came. "I've spent 10 years trying to design something, and in 10 weeks these students came up with a prototype that had a lot of promise," he says. "It was refreshing to see these engineering students come to the design table without hesitancies, which those of us in animal training and animal care often possess and which may have prevented us from building a device like this in the past."

The grabber was originally designed as a device that, when used in conjunction with an endoscope, could grab an object in a mammal's stomach using a system of tubes and knobs. When the initial class ended, there was still much work to do. Jeff Mills (mechanical engineering '07) took on the project and spent much of his undergraduate career trying to further enhance the tool.

Mills thought the device could be better, but in order to improve the design, he and three other students who continued to work on the design had to first learn about whale anatomy. "We realized that when you go through the throat, you can see the heart pumping against the skin," he says. "So to have something sharp is dangerous."

The group had to learn how much force was needed to get through the sphincter muscle into the stomach and studied the size and curvature of the stomach itself. They then improved the design, creating a head that could rotate both left and right and up and down. But the device still wasn't perfect. "We didn't have any control at the end," he says. "Nothing was working yet. It was just ideas coming together."

Later, Mills again took on the project with two other students as an independent study. That's when they developed the current system, which uses a joystick attached to covered wires that control the grabber head at the end.

Mills alone kept working on the project as a summer internship and came up with the final design, which includes better materials and an optimized system. "Safety was one of the biggest factors," Mills says. "You want to make sure there's no way this is going to break off in the animal."

The final design uses a three-inch grabber head that can move 90 degrees in every direction. With the head's six-inch neck, the grabber can reach every part of a dolphin's or beluga whale's stomach. Each component that holds the grabber together has a backup in case something breaks, and wires are covered by contoured tubing to allow for a smooth entrance and exit. The teeth on the grabber head range from small in the front to large in the back so smaller objects can easily be seized. "The arc in the back of the grabber and the hole in the center of the head reduce the weight," Mills says. "Something like a golf ball can fit nicely in there. It has a lot of interesting design features."

The best part, Mills says, was using the math and engineering skills he learned in school and actually applying them to a real mechanism. "Being able to actually go down to the shop and build it — it's just a really cool experience," he says.

Now the device sits on the shelf at the aquarium — and luckily, Van Bonn and his staff haven't had to use it. They have been training with it, however, since a different student group created a model of a whale's stomach for practice.

"It's more likely to help colleagues who work on animals that come in from the wild, but it's nice to know we have it on hand here at Shedd just in case," Van Bonn says. And he's right. Several of Van Bonn's colleagues at other organizations are interested in purchasing one of their own. That might be a possibility, since Mills developed a full set of manufacturing specifications. In addition, new student teams will continue to work on the grabber design, creating different types of jaws and attachments to grab different objects, making the grabber even more adaptable.

Dolphin teamInspiring dolphins' minds
It's not all work and no play at one of the world's largest aquariums — which is home to some of the smartest and most playful animals on the planet. Four female Pacific white-sided dolphins jump, dive, and splash their way through each day in Shedd's popular Oceanarium, which draws more than 2 million visitors each year.

Shedd animal trainers are always inventing new ways to stimulate the dolphins' intellectual capacity through fun games and exercises. "Most of the items they play with are passive — like basketballs," Van Bonn says. "They love to play with them. They throw them around, and they carry them down to the bottom of the pool and watch them fly up to the surface. But we continue to strive to provide them with the best care and felt we could create an interactive toy that is less repetitive through the partnership."

Shedd asked a McCormick design class to come up with a device to enrich the dolphins' environment and provide more interaction between the dolphins and guests. The first team came up with a radio-controlled boat that would drive around the surface of the exhibit. That idea was ultimately eliminated, however, because of safety concerns and because it did not utilize the underwater viewing area.

So this year, another design class took on the project to see how they could modify it. The team originally considered a radio-controlled submarine but quickly found it impractical — any slight bump could break such a device, and the idea of allowing visitors to control the submarine brought up too many safety concerns.

"Instead we came up with something that gives visitors the illusion that they're interacting with the dolphins," says team member Vanessa Valenzuela (mechanical engineering '10).

The design her group created is a submergible platform complete with interchangeable features, including a ball, artificial seaweed, a hydrophone, and a bubble wall. "The platform and its features provide a variety of audio, visual, and tactile stimulation for the dolphins while allowing for expansion in the future," says team member Ilana Rosen (manufacturing and design '08).

The simplest attachment is the boomer ball — a toy ball dolphins already use in their habitat. Normally these hard plastic balls have holes drilled in them so they'll sink, but the team hopes to create a ball that will float by filling it with ice, thereby keeping the dolphins attention with something new.

The artificial kelp attached to the platform gives the dolphins something to feel and touch. Since Shedd trainers said the dolphins love rubbing their bodies against the windows of the exhibit, the team made kelp from plastic car wash material and filled it with slices of pool noodles — foam flotation toys — that would encourage the dolphins to rub up against it and directly interact with the platform.

The hydrophone is an underwater microphone that records the numerous noises dolphins make through echolocation. When dolphins send out a click (which allows them to sense their environment and find prey), the hydrophone will record the noise. These noises can then be filtered to a frequency humans can hear and could be broadcast to guests watching from above and below the surface. (Visitors currently hear prerecorded noises.)

The team also hopes to incorporate the hydrophone into the last feature of the device: the bubble wall. Dolphins love bubbles, according to Shedd's animal trainers, and have been known to create bubbles underwater and bite at them. They even test themselves to see how close to the surface they can bite the bubbles before the bubbles break. Some dolphins can even make large bubble rings to swim through. "Bubbles represent play for both dolphins and humans," says team member Justin Li (computer science '09).

The team says they hope to synchronize the hydrophone and the bubble wall so that when a dolphin sends out an echolocation click to the hydrophone, bubbles would come out of the tube. "We're trying to engage that sense of perception," Li says.

Through it all, the team says they've learned time-management skills, and they've learned that just because they think something will work doesn't necessarily mean it will; everything has to be tested.

"For the kelp, we thought we'd use 'noodle' pool toys because we figured if it makes us float it must work," Valenzuela says. "But actually we didn't know if it would make the kelp float."

The biggest challenge for the team was designing something for a client that communicates through clicks. "Our clients were dolphins," says team member Stephanie Lo (manufacturing and design '08). "We're used to having human clients and asking them their preferences and needs. For this we had to go and research animal behavior. That's the only thing we had to go on."

And for this project, the dolphins must not only accept the device but interact with it, too. "We have to challenge them on a physical and intellectual level," Li says, "so they're not just bored."

But in the end, the team might not see the fruits of their labor. Though they hope to have a working prototype, it could take weeks or even months for the dolphins to interact with their idea. "We're hoping that because bubbles are part of their natural environment, they will play with it," Valenzuela says.

Throughout the process the team periodically presented their progress to Van Bonn and other Shedd staff to gain useful feedback and modification suggestions. "Whether the projects work or not, we've always been impressed by the students' commitment and dedication to our projects," Van Bonn says.

Fish surgerySedating fish
In an aquarium of more than 26,000 animals, patients are visited by the doctor every day for everything from routine health checkups to surgeries.

Some fish are easier to examine up close than others, and when Van Bonn and his team need to check on some of the more slippery and wiggly ones — most of which are exotic and unusual — they must keep them underwater in order to survive. "We can't say, 'Hold still and turn over,' in order to examine a fish and make sure it's doing well," Van Bonn says.

So Shedd, like other aquariums, uses fish anesthesia, which is diluted in water so the fish can breathe it through its gills and become sedated. "For humans, you can buy a vaporizer that will deliver anesthetic gas, and you can control precisely what the patient is breathing and make a real-time change," Van Bonn says. "Nothing like that exists for fish."

While some fish are put under for checkups, others are sedated for surgery — and there's no such thing as a routine surgery at Shedd. Working closely with animal care staff who monitor the animals 24/7, Van Bonn and Shedd's animal health team are often called in when something is out of the ordinary that may warrant an additional procedure.

Shedd surgeons have repaired a bullfrog's knee and have removed many cancerous masses from different fish. (Fish get cancer both in the wild and in the aquarium.) "We have a number of cancer survivors in the collection now, which is a benefit of living in an aquarium that cares so deeply about its residents," Van Bonn says.

Van Bonn also notes that Shedd's commitment to animal care is allowing many animals to live longer lives, so close check-ups are more important in caring for a geriatric collection. "Many of these animals would not have survived in the wild this long," Van Bonn adds.

Veterinarians at Shedd have designed their own anesthesia systems, and while their own makeshift approaches have worked successfully, none is sophisticated enough to control the amount of anesthesia in real time, which is something Van Bonn and others desire. A senior biomedical engineering design course took on the challenge in 2006 and created a fish anesthesia machine that included an examining table for the fish and a computer system that could adjust the anesthesia and water in real time.

"We knew that we wanted something really intuitive and easy to use," says team member Tiffany Keung Oettinger (biomedical engineering '06). "The veterinarians are in surgery running around and they don't have a whole lot of time to mess with it."

To use the system, a veterinarian positions a tube in the fish's mouth and inputs the correct amount of anesthesia into a computer. The computer then sends a message to two tanks beneath the table — one holding water, one holding anesthesia — to mix the right anesthetic solution. The group designed LabVIEW software to control the valves in the tanks' pumps.

"The hardest part was that we didn't know how to do any of it — the software, the hardware — so we had to learn both software code and the mechanics of the system," Oettinger says. "Then we had to create a table that was adaptable and could be bleached and sanitized after every use."

Though it was hard work, by the end of the class Oettinger's team was the only one with a working prototype. "It was really good to be able to take a project from nothing and build it into something that worked and that was usable," she says. The design even won the third place Margaret and Muir Frey Memorial Prize, which is awarded each year to McCormick students for innovation and creativity in senior capstone work.

SandbergOnce the initial design team graduated, Jason Sandberg (biomedical engineering '09) took on the project as a work-study student, refining and testing the design. He then worked on improving the software and user interface before transferring the system from a desktop computer to a laptop. That required all new hardware and a new system input.

"I didn't have much knowledge of electronics, so it took me a while to troubleshoot it," he says. "The first time I tried to build a circuit, the whole thing melted. Things that I thought would take me four hours to figure out actually took three weeks. But that made it a good learning experience — I was forced to figure everything out."

The optimized system was delivered and tested in late February. "This is a wonderful veterinary tool in that it allows us much more flexibility and much more capability to tailor the delivery of the anesthetic agent to the patient's needs in real time," Van Bonn says.

Though Oettinger has graduated and is now an engineer for a pharmaceutical company, she says the skills she learned creating the system have helped her immensely. "The biggest thing in the real world is being flexible and knowing that you have to constantly learn things," she says. "It's more about knowing where to find resources and having an open mind and not expecting to know everything."

McCormick and Shedd look to the future
The partnership between Northwestern and Shedd has grown over the past several years and has been beneficial to both organizations. As Shedd continues to build on its commitment to providing the very best animal care, it will look to Northwestern for support. And McCormick is happy to oblige, says Matt Glucksberg, professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, who was the
adviser on the fish anesthesia project.

"The Shedd is a unique resource for McCormick," he says. "It's not just a rich source of projects and an inviting environment for our students. They have real problems that have real engineering solutions, and the students know that if they do their job they will see their ideas used in one of the premiere cultural institutions in Chicago."

—Emily Ayshford